Our start up company has been starting up for over three years now. I guess you could say we had version 1.0, 2.0 and now we’re starting 3.0. Every version gets better, thanks to all the mistakes we’ve made. And I am grateful for all the mistakes I’ve made in particular.

Making mistakes is underrated. Some of the best work I’ve done has come on the heels of, and resulting from, some spectacular mistakes. The key is in framing mistakes and failure within a context of experimentation, learning and growth. A mistake made without learning is a mistake wasted.

Most of us fear failure. We’ve been taught to avoid it at all cost. Many organizations inject fear into their culture through intolerance to failure. They value results over discovery and invention. Such rigidity allows little room for curiosity and creativity, which in turn limits innovation. Successful people and organizations strike a balance between performance and learning cultures to obtain the optimal opportunity for innovation.  

Woody Allen said if your not failing, then you’re not doing anything innovative. Honda’s founder, Sochiro Honda, said, “Success is 99% failure.” And golfer Tom Watson states, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate”. These are people who’ve befriended failure, and turned it into an ally.

Mistakes take us into unintentional territory, where other influences are available to participate in something altogether unexpected. The book Happy Accidents shows that over half of the medical breakthroughs had an accidental origin. And what chef hasn’t created something fabulous from an unexpected pairing of elements.

There is a way to engage with failure that gets the most out of it, and turns it into productive failure

•    First, you have to leave shame and guilt at the door. Neurologically speaking, those headspaces take you out of the creative and learning centers of the brain, and into fight or flight (and blame) reactions. 

•    Allow yourself to actually feel the pinch of failure. Don’t run from it. Just imagine it as ‘time released success’. Breathe. Don’t allow the pain and discomfort of making a mistake drive your mind into blame and self-blame thoughts. It’s useless and counterproductive.

•    Next, you have to slow down mentally and physically. Allow yourself to pause and reflect on what happened. Do so with the sense of being an explorer or a scientist seeking a discovery.

•    Journaling is really helpful at this point. Writing things down expands learning and discovery. 

•    Talk about it with others who share the ‘productive failure’ mindset. Access their wisdom and experience.

•    And lastly, capture what you have learned. Again, journaling is the most effective way to do this. Or use a vision board. Or a white-board.

•    If it’s appropriate, share your experience with others.

There, that is my ‘Seven Step Process of Productive Failure’. I came up with it because I make a lot of mistakes. I mess up all the time. 

Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute calls this way of productive failure prototyping.  Prototyping allows us to experiment, test, fail, learn, and try again with the new information. It establishes a sense of ‘let’s try this’ so that many small, inexpensive attempts may be made, feedback from stakeholders received, ultimately leading towards better outcomes.

Seizing the wisdom of failure is not just a leadership, organizational opportunity. It’s a relationship one too. The other day I blew it big time with a significant person in my life. At first I felt so much guilt and shame. And it got in the way of my connection with them, and myself. It prevented me from being present with what the situation was offering to teach me. 

After taking time, and space, and engaging with what happened, I learned something really valuable about myself and discovered a particular aspect of an unconscious relational blueprint that had previously driven many relationship dramas—something I’d never seen before. 

I was able to emerge much wiser, and even be profoundly grateful for the experience, as uncomfortable as it was. Even better, I was able to share it with the other, which built deeper trust.

So, live a life rich with prototyping, experimentation and exploration. And don’t forget to make mistakes…I dare you. Fall off the map. Blow it. Mess it up. Screw the pooch. Jump the shark. SNAFU. TARFUN. FUBAR. Fail and fail fast. 

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